Global Warming Solutions? Artificial Trees versus Real Forests

This is the third in a series of articles outlining my proposed global warming solutions. The first and second articles provide background material for the series. ~PSW

How about this for a design principle: Always choose the simplest, cheapest, low-tech solution over a more complicated, more expensive, high-tech solution. That might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at some of the Rube Goldbergesque proposals I’ve come across while researching global warming solutions.

Artificial trees — the designs for which come with pedigrees from Columbia University and England’s prestigious Institution for Mechanical Engineers (IME) — are one of my favorite overdesigned boondoggles. IME’s design, one of several versions of artificial trees that have been proposed, are tall metal towers topped with large, specialized air filters. They would be “planted” along Britain’s highways and byways where they would suck up auto emissions and store greenhouse gases in the filters.

Maintenance crews would stop by periodically and replace the filters, then sequester the used, gas-saturated filters in abandoned coal mines. Naturally a great deal of energy will be needed to manufacture, install and operate the trees and handle and transport the filters, negating some of the positive effects of the atmospheric scrubbing.

But at least this should provide quite a few jobs since we have to sequester about seven billion tons of CO2 annually just to keep the atmosphere at its current saturation level. Why, in just a few years we’ll need to employ thousands of miners to dig new coal mines, so we can abandon them to provide more storage for the filters!

To be fair, IMI’s designers claim that each tree can capture up to 10 tons of COper day — thousands of times more than the capacity of a real tree. They assert that with an investment of around five billion dollars (not counting operating costs), Britain could build a “forest” of 100,000 trees that could remove 60 percent of its CO2 emissions. Ostensibly, investing in 5 to 10 million trees could absorb all the world’s CO2 from all sources other than power plants.

Are Real Forests Better Global Warming Solutions?

But what if those same billions of dollars were spent on programs to preserve and expand existing forests which already sequester carbon and perform many other ecosystem services? Rather than investing in unproven high-tech systems (what are the artificial tree filters made from? will that material become scarce? what happens when the trees break down? who will pay for the ongoing expense of maintaining the “forest?”), why not invest in the proven “technology” of highly evolved, sustainable living systems?

Largely self-regulating and self-maintaining, and “running” on free solar energy, established forests sequester vast quantities of CO2, nourish biodiversity, retain and condition soil, help regulate the water cycle and, if sustainably harvested, can yield quality building materials and other valuable products for generations to come.

But rapid worldwide deforestation, mostly in developing nations, is responsible for 20 to 25 percent of all greenhouse gas releases (mostly CO2 and methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas). So, globally, humanity is making the problem worse while desperately trying to build machinery to fix it. It’s like pouring water into a bucket while drilling bigger and bigger holes in the bottom.

Granted, the politics of developed nations investing in forest conservation in developing nations is tricky and demanding. But no more so than the politics of trying to get, say, massive polluters like India and China to install artificial trees in their cities. Why not begin by preserving and expanding existing forests, rather than reinventing nature’s wheel and building fake forests from scratch?


This post is a modified version of an article that was originally written as syndicated newspaper column, published in various locations around the U.S. in March, 2012. 

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, without raising your cost one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Deforestation and Climate Change, Bosetti and Lubowski

Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer

(Note, David Archer, the teacher of a popular course on global warming for non-scientists at the University of Chicago, now offers a version, “Open Climate 101” — online and for free. If you complete the online course, he’ll send you a signed certificate. Read a good review of Online 101 on the NY Times Dot Earth environmental blog.)

Storms of My Grand Children, James C. Hansen
Hell and High Water, Joseph Romm
Forecast, Stephan Faris
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas

Related Links On Ecotecture:

Global Warming Solution? The Framework for a Plan (1st article in this series)

Global Warming Solution? Energy Conservation and Carbon Biostorage (2nd article in this series)

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar? 

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming? 

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

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